Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People – Sally Rooney (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2018)

At this point, Sally Rooney probably needs no introduction. All three of her novels have been huge bestsellers and Normal People was turned into a mini-series. I’d sort of written her off as a young Millenial author and as an elder Millenial myself, I assumed I would have nothing in common with her books or characters. I had, however, put Normal People on my TBR back in 2018, the library had it in stock, and so I read it. In the end, I devoured the story in just 2 days.

Yes, the story begins with high schoolers in 2011, a year in which I was navigating newlywed life, but the novel is so firmly based in characterization and relationships that the timeframe is almost irrelevant.

The book follows Marianne and Connell through four years of their young adult lives. Drastically different in high school, they are nonetheless magnetically pulled together. Over and over again, they are unable to stay apart and no other relationships in their lives seem to offer what they receive from one another. Connell is quiet but popular in high school, easily able to navigate the adolescent turmoil. Marianne is the outsider, disdainful of all things related to their high school and town. A betrayal separate them at the end of high school until they are reunited at university several months later.

Here, their roles seem to have shifted. Marianne has found her groove and settled into university life well while Connell is struggling to find his footing. Again and again they are drawn to one another, sometimes to the detriment of other relationships. Though the question that lingers through the novel is whether or not this is a relationship that truly benefits them both. Would it be better for them to full sever their ties or to completely accept what draws them together?

Rooney does an amazing job of moving easily between two very different characters. She stays in third person but it is always clear whether or not we are viewing the world from Marianne’s or Connell’s perspective. Each chapter begins with the month and year, along with how much time has passed since the last section, which also nicely grounds the reader. Shifting between the two main characters like this lets us see how they view the world and how they view each other. We see the large and minute misunderstandings that develop between them. In one particular instance, we spend a section with Marianne, pondering a confusing departure by Connell only to more fully understand the situation when we switch again to his perspective.

These aren’t the frustrating misunderstandings that usually pepper rom-coms though. The kind that could easily be explained away if the characters These are real life misunderstandings. Ones based in social and economic and family differences. Ones based in the fact that different people communicate in different ways and sometimes even when you’re being clear, another person doesn’t hear the true meaning behind your words.

I wanted to stay with Marianne and Connell. I wanted to follow them into middle age, into their senior years. They felt like people I went to school with, classmates I might have set next to. They felt like real people. I’ll be eagerly awaiting my next Sally Rooney read.

26 thoughts on “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”

  1. Wow, okay. You’ve totally changed my feelings about this author’s work. I also did not want to read her books because I’m an elder Millennial, and reading about twenty-something feelings really doesn’t fit with what I want to experience right now. I got enough of it at my last few jobs, and I have to say, twenty-somethings are hard to relate to. And yet now I’m surrounded by the next generation (what is it called??) because my classmates are half my age. Oddly, I relate more to the folks who are about 18 more so than folks who are in their late twenties. I’m not sure if there was a shift of some sort? The teenagers are more practical and realistic (what kind of work they can expect, what kind of licensing they need, how they obtain health insurance, etc.). The twenty-somethings were always chasing their dreams of being artists and actors and crying (literally) that they couldn’t get a full-time job doing that in a bad economy.

    1. That’s pretty much exactly how I felt! But Rooney really surprised me and the book is so character-based that it really felt like it could have taken place in any generation. I honestly don’t spend much time these days with people in their twenties so I’m interested to hear you notice a difference between them and the new young adults. I thought they were all Generation Z but maybe there’s a shift in there somewhere? I could imagine that those who finished high school in the last couple of years recognize that they are entering a vastly different world than those who graduated just a little before them. Though I thought we millennials had pretty much demonstrated to everyone that we weren’t going to benefit from the same kind of privilege that so many of our parents did.

    2. According to Pew Research, Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996 and Gen Z were born any time after 1997. Which makes sense, because we were entering adulthood, they were being born.

    3. I feel like 2020 will end up being a big generational divide. Like, those who came of age post-Covid, or kids like mine who essentially won’t know a pre-pandemic world. I find this stuff fascinating because it’s sort of arbitrary but also helps us understand each other better.

    4. So true! I’m not sure if you remember Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku, but she got pregnant and had a baby during COVID, and that little girl is already 18 months old and walking around.

    5. Isn’t that crazy?? I have a friend who told me she was pregnant during our first lockdown and yesterday that baby was sitting at my kitchen table eating dinner! At this point, I’m not sure Rose really remembers a time when we went into stores without masks.

  2. I really enjoyed Normal People when I read it a few years ago. Like you I wasn’t sure if I would be drawn to Rooney’s characters, but I found the push and pull between Marianne and Connell strangely hypnotizing.

  3. I felt the same way about Rooney before I read her too – almost like I was too told for her. And yes, her topics were seriously ‘younger’ than what I was used to, but I ate them up anyway 😉

    1. So interesting that several of us seem to have felt the same way. I wonder what it is about the marketing of Rooney’s books that seem to have given so many people that impression! Have you read any others by her?

  4. This sounds completely different to what I had expected – I’d honestly assumed I’d just be irritated by all the drama and that it would be full of rom-com style misunderstandings (which are, as you say, very frustrating). I’m still not completely sold on it, but I think I’ll eventually get worn down by all the good reviews!

    1. I was so glad to see the misunderstandings here were entirely realistic and reflective of how actual relationships work. There’s drama but the book doesn’t feel Dramatic, if you know what I mean.

  5. Perfectly put! I couldn’t have described the entire novel better! Have you seen the mini-series?

    1. Oh I really recommend!! I actually loved it! The chemistry between the actors were on point, and I watched it before I read the book so that really enhanced my reading experience!

    2. Awesome! Sometimes I think watching a movie or TV version before reading the book makes me like the screen version better!

    3. It stayed pretty close to the book imo, and I think I liked it just a bit better than the book actually

  6. Love this review! The most painful thing for me about this book was seeing how the misunderstandings you mentioned kept adding up until they became this unsurmountable barrier. It truly made me think about how life is so complex and fragile. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book too!

    1. Thanks! I agree that the misunderstandings are so painful. One thing I really appreciated about Rooney’s writing though is that those misunderstandings still felt real and complex, far less frustrating that the rom-com type problems that could be easily solved with one conversation.

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